The Misadventures of Dungboy
This is a companion piece to my other story, Double-Edged Swords, but it can be read on its own.
Smoke-gray clouds thundered in the distance, hanging low in the sky. The Narayan citizens cared nothing for the weather, though; the marketplace was teeming with life as usual. Crowds pressed closer and closer to a firebreather, watching the curling flames in awe, as groups of travelers and merchants stopped at pastry stalls and pottery stands
In other words, the city of Rannap was currently in the perfect condition for pickpocketing.
One boy in particular salivated at the sight of the traders' jingling money belts, and this boy's name was Flin Cardif. He sat perched on the roof of the stables, the wind rustling through his untidy golden-brown locks. Sharp eyes marking out the most likely victims, he leapt off the roof with easy grace. For a fourteen-year-old, his body was unusually coordinated, although his long limbs were awkward with adolescence. Slipping through the chattering hordes, he focused on his target: an overly fat merchant with gaudy clothes and a money bag roughly the size of a small melon.
With practiced ease, Flin followed the merchant, weaving around the citizens with the effortlessness of a native . He took his chance when the oaf stopped to buy some honey-sweets. The fat man's money bag was history.
Chuckling to himself, the boy pocketed the gaudy pouch and swaggered back to his usual spot on the roof, where he could survey basically the entire market. Flin considered himself to be the authority on this city. There were many other pickpockets and petty thieves, of course – most urban areas had plenty – but he was the best of the best, even though he was only fourteen. In his opinion, thievery was the most noble profession – stealing from the overly rich was no crime. He made it a point to only take from those who could afford it, and he took a vindictive pleasure in every bag he managed to snatch. Life was good.
And when he saw two magnificent horses gallop into the cobbled streets, he excitedly knew that life was about to get better. On the beautiful palomino, the one that entered the stables first, there was a young man, coldly handsome, with classic features and a slightly contemptuous expression on his face. Flin noticed that his clothes were elaborate, with leather breeches and a long black overcoat that must have cost a fortune. The second horse, a handsome bay, was ridden by a beautiful girl, with long flowing black hair and very red lips.
He rubbed his hands together. This was well on its way to becoming a wonderful day. Scraping himself in his haste to get down, Flin landed on two feet and then slunk into the stables. The two nobles were on their feet, conversing in low tones. Flin's eyes settled appreciatively on the girl – she looked to be maybe his age, maybe a bit older, and she was very attractive. The girl noticed him and blushed; he winked at her, puffing out his chest a little. Most girls thought he was older than fourteen.
"Selera, I think we've got it made," the young man was saying. He rubbed the flank of his palomino absently and turned around. Dark sardonic eyes fell right on Flin; the man arched an elegant eyebrow, stroking his fine goatee. "What're you doing, lad? Listening to our conversation? Stay away from your betters – Dungboy."
Flin raised his own eyebrow to match this pompous noble, but he chose to say nothing. If he didn't draw attention to himself, Sir Pinecone-in-his-britches would probably not remember him.
"Nicar," the beautiful girl, Selera, protested.
Nicar flicked him one last disdainful glance and stalked outside. Arrogant little prick, Flin thought amusedly.
He followed them into the inn, trying to stay in the background. The inn was an ideal place for pickpocketing, but the innkeeper knew him too well. The two rich ones sat on barstools next to the innkeeper, their backs to the crowd; it was an opportunity not likely to repeat itself. Flin slipped up to them and carefully placed his fingers on the top of Selera's moneybag –
An iron fist closed around his neck. It was Nicar, anger flashing in his eyes. "Dungboy again," he said contemptuously. "The worst pickpocket I have ever seen. Get out."
He tossed Flin away like a bag of feathers. Furious, young Flin sat up, nursing injured pride more than anything else. The worst pickpocket – well, clearly, the bastard hadn't met many of them. He'd wipe that self-righteousness off Nicar's face, soon enough.
Flin took it upon himself to stalk the pair more doggedly than he had ever followed any of his victims. And for all Nicar's sharpness, the man didn't once suspect he had a shadow, either. The two of them went into a small glassmaker's shop; Flin was familiar with the owner, an old man called Tinedrik. He was one person that wasn't likely to ever be robbed, even though he temptingly sold very expensive glass; the old man's eye was sharper than his whip. Flin clambered onto the dingy roof and pressed his ear to the chimney, ignoring the cloud of soot that puffed into the air as he settled down.
"Tinedrik," Nicar said. "This is Selera."
"Ah. She has the looks of her father."
"Don't insult me, Tin," the beautiful girl said. "We're not here to beat around the bush."
"We're on our way to the palace," Nicar cut in smoothly, his voice floating up the chimney clearly. "King Reonar has invited us. My father has him under his thumb; Reonar is completely amenable to the idea of Selera marrying his son."
"You realize Mealc is a halfwit? Not to mention, Selera, you're only fifteen –"
"I'm sixteen in a few months, and I'm not planning to marry him right away. And since he's a halfwit, he won't have any expectations of me – and once I'm a princess, my father has no claim on me. So don't try to patronize me."
"I need a spy," Nicar said hastily, interrupting her diatribe. "Do you know anyone?"
"No," the glassmaker said bluntly. "I don't know anyone who's foolhardy enough to become a spy."
"Tinedrik, you owe me," the noble said menacingly. "I want someone reliable."
Flin listened interestedly to the conversation, intrigued by the plotting. Clearly these were nobles with royal ambitions. He adjusted his position and missed the next minute of dialogue as he tried to stay balanced, but eventually he looked down and saw that the two of them were leaving.
Here was Chance Number Two. He slid down the roof, soot and dust coating him, and as he landed he lunged for Nicar's purse –
He felt that familiar sinking feeling in his stomach as cold fingers held him by the wrist. How in heaven's name was this noble so sensitive? Flin had the nimblest fingers in the town – he had never been caught before
"You again!" Nicar exploded.
Selera giggled. "I've never known anyone with more audacity."
"Dungboy, do you want me to teach you a lesson you'll never forget?" Nicar growled, shoving him against the glassmaker's door, which promptly fell over. Flin summoned up his phlegm and neatly spit in the noble's face.
Ten minutes later, he was lying in a heap, his eye throbbing and his nose bleeding. Humiliated, he stood up, his legs wobbly.
"You asked for that one, boy," a gruff voice remarked, and Flin turned around to see Tinedrik the glassmaker. The old man's wrinkled face was amused.
"I've never been caught before," Flin snapped.
"And Lord Nicar's a worthy one to catch you, Cardif. Here, come inside."
"I've been hurt worse than this," he said sullenly, touching his nose tentatively. It seemed swollen – and almost crooked. Well, it was almost true – he had been in many fights – but his nose had never ached so much.
"I'm not planning to mop you up, boy. I'm not your mother. I was going to offer you a cup of whisky, that's all."
"Whisky?" Flin perked up – he'd never tried whisky, though he liked ale well enough – and he followed the man inside, dabbing at his pulsing nose with his sleeve.
The whisky was strong and bitter – and disgusting – but Flin downed it like a man. That is, he tried not to spit it out. It did warm his stomach, though. "Who is this Lord Nicar anyway?" he demanded of Tinedrik, who seemed very entertained at his whisky-drinking.
"You mark my words, boy. You'll know a lot about him in a few years. He's going to make himself known, that lad. I've never seen so much raw ambition in the face of someone who's scarcely twenty. Now get out. You've finished your whisky. I won't have you bleedin' all over my glass, now. Take this hanky and git! And, boy – mark my words. Don't go after Lord Nicar. He'll make you regret it."
Flin nodded appreciatively and dodged out, blotting the blood with Tinedrik's rather dirty old rag. The old man had a nasty bite – Flin had known the sting of his leather whip many times before he had learned not to steal from Tinedrik – but all in all, his bark was much worse.
And he wasn't going to listen to Tinedrik at all. He was going to get that Nicar back, if it was the last thing he ever did.
Darkness lightly cloaked the streets, but it was never fully night in Rannap. Rain splashed into the gutters relentlessly, but shopkeepers merely propped up makeshift canopies and conducted lively business as always. The glow of the inn's lanterns matched the fierce shine in young Flin's eyes. He was looking forward to tonight with a grim pleasure.
Deliberately he pushed through the shouting, bawdy crowd, his eyes on the prize –Sir Noble Jackass, Nicar, who was walking up the stairs with his lovely companion behind him. Nicar went into one room, Selera another – Flin smirked – and then the doors shut respectively, and Flin settled down on the stairs to wait.
When the rowdiness had died down a bit –the occupants of the inn followed a familiar routine, and at one o'clock in the morning they were generally asleep or sick – Flin stood up and quietly slipped up to Nicar's door. It was locked, naturally, but locks were child's play. This particular noble, he saw, was the suspicious sort – he had a very complicated padlock. It was no problem for Flin, though – his lockpick was expensive and completely foolproof. The more challenging part was not upsetting the bucket of water placed strategically by the door, and really that was barely a problem at all. He carefully inserted his fingers into the crack and pushed it away. The bucket method was only effective with the element of surprise; it wouldn't warn Nicar at all in this case. Nearly invisible string ran from one end of the room to the other, intended to trip up prospective thieves, but Flin rolled his eyes. He had seen it all before.
Flin tiptoed into the room with practiced precision and spotted a bulge under the sleeping man's pillow. It was a simple enough task to worm it out without waking his Lordship even a bit. He could scarcely contain a derisive laugh – it was too easy. He turned around –
For the third time that day, Nicar's hands closed around his throat.
"I – don't – believe this," he hissed venomously, his voice thick with sleep. "Do you want to be throttled, Dungboy? What the hell do you want?"
Flin couldn't spit in his face this time for fear that Nicar would strangle him – in fact, he couldn't speak at all.
"How did you get in?" Nicar demanded angrily. "I put several precautions –"
"Child's play," Flin choked, trying to sound suave. It was quite difficult to appear the sophisticated burglar, however, seeing that Nicar had him humiliatingly pinned to a wall.
His Lordship scanned Flin's face, the fury in his eyes fading a little bit. "I've caught about six robbers this way, boy." He loosened his hold a little, allowing Flin some air.
"They were amateurs."
"And you aren't?"
"I've never been caught in my life," Flin said sullenly. "Most nobles snore so loudly that they wouldn't hear an elephant if they tried, and I've been doing this for years."
Nicar snorted. "I only look like a foppish fool, boy. I'm not."
Flin chose not to answer.
The man looked at him speculatively. "What's your name? Besides Dungboy?"
"What d'you want with my name?" Flin demanded warily. "Let me go, will you?"
"Are you up for some easy money, boy?" Nicar dropped Flin like a stone and snatched away his money purse. Dangling it temptingly in front of Flin's face, he raised his eyebrow. The coins jingled merrily. "There's a lot more where this comes from. I could use someone with your tenacity - how many times have you tried to rob me today? Three?"
"What kind of job?" Flin massaged his throat a little and eyed the plump bag greedily.
"A job that involves stealing."
"How much are you planning to shove up?"
"Not a chance, then," Flin scoffed. "I'm not putting myself in danger for ten measly royas, not when I can just snatch it. It'll have to be a lot more for that."
"You forget that you're at my mercy right now," Nicar said silkily. "All right, make it fifteen."
"I'll need an advance to make sure you pay me."
"Nothing doing. Not till the job's done."
"I'm not doing it then."
"Then you don't get the job."
"Fine," Flin said nonchalantly, though he wanted the job. Not only would it be an easy fifteen royas, but it intrigued him that such a noble would need some dirty work done. "Not my problem. I'll just go find another –"
"Then you don't get the job and I turn you over to the guards," Nicar interrupted coolly. "Or you take the job, and I keep quiet."
"You advance me five royas, then."
"Deal." He dropped four shining coins in Flin's outstretched palm. "What's your name, then?"
"Flin. Flin Cardif."
"Well, Master Flin, I think Dungboy suits you just fine – but let it rest. I want you to steal a document from Countess Felden's. You know the house? Of course you do. I know exactly where it is, and I want it – tonight."
When Flin placed the curling parchment, a letter describing King Reonar's latest exploits with a certain servingmaid, into Nicar's hands two hours later, he felt an odd sense of satisfaction. Nicar read it and rolled his eyes a few times, then looked at Flin appraisingly.
"You came back faster than I thought."
"I told you, I'm the best. Hand over the money." He pocketed the fifteen royas smugly, feeling the satisfaction of money well earned.
"Hang on a second, Dung – er, Flin. You wouldn't mind doing something else for me, would you? It involves some – shall I say, disreputable people?" Nicar coughed delicately. "I couldn't be seen with them, but I need some information. You didn't run off. I admit, I thought you would."
"Well, on one condition," Flin said slowly. "You don't call me Dungboy any more. And you introduce me properly to your lady friend Selera."
"Selera's off limits, boy," Nicar said warningly. Most interestingly the noble flushed a little. "But I can call you Flin, I suppose. Well, now that that's settled –"
"Ah-ah, not so fast. How much you willing to pay?"
Flin met Nicar's eyes squarely, with the frankness of an equal. He was surprised to see a mischievous sparkle in his Lordship's dark, penetrating eyes; it was an expression that suddenly lessened the gap between the street thief and the lofty noble.
Flin felt a surge of excitement. Those two words were just loaded with potential.